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Softball preview: La Cañada eyeing another league championship

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Emily Tinkham is a key returner this season for the La Cañada High softball team.
(Raul Roa \ Staff Photographer)

Defending the Rio Hondo League title for a fifth time could be a challenge for the La Cañada High softball team, considering the program saw the graduation of the league’s most valuable pitcher, as well as the league’s most valuable player.

Upstart Flintridge Prep will try to build off of last season’s playoff success, while Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy will attempt to gain traction after missing the playoffs a season ago.

Here is a closer look at the teams.

LA CAÑADA

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There’s a void to fill for the Spartans, but maybe the team’s biggest issue isn’t a lack of quality; it’s figuring out how to utilize the team’s depth to its fullest potential, as coach Chuck Gunter believes he won’t have a solid lineup soon.

“We might get halfway through season before we figure it out,” said Gunter, who still has four positions he’s seeking to lock down. “There’s not a whole lot of drop off between the choices. They’re all pretty good. I guess it’s going to be on whoever has a good practice and whoever’s bat is hot because, defensively, they’re all pretty similar.”

La Cañada, which finished 21-5-1 and 11-1 in league last season and reached the CIF Southern Section Division V quarterfinals, will look to defend its league title against Temple City and Monrovia. Gunter said the Spartans will also have to be wary of San Marino.

With its postseason success, La Canada was bumped up to Division IV after a year in Division V.

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“The league is getting better every year, I feel,” Gunter said. “I guess that’s why they moved us back to Division IV for playoffs because we’re going deeper and deeper each year.”

To fend off the competition and claim a fifth, straight league crown, the Spartans look to two pitchers to step up in the circle to fill in for Holly Stoner, who posted a league record of 11-1 with a 1.25 earned-run average and struck out 104, walked 13, allowed 23 runs (13 earned) in 72 2/3 innings.

Returning to the pitcher’s circle is junior Delaney Choi, who took a year off to focus on academics, but still saw action for her club team.

Gunter will give more pitching chances to sophomore and all-league honorable mention Devyn Cox, who also hit .361 with nine runs last season. She also delivered a solo home run against Maranatha to send the Spartans to the quarterfinals.

What might be the toughest spot to replace will be first base, which opened up following the graduation of league MVP Alexis Abboud.

Gunter currently has three players vying for a spot at first base, but at the plate, the Spartans will have to make up for the Abboud’s .582 batting average, 26 runs and 34 runs batted in.

“We lost six seniors, a pitcher and an MVP,” Gunter said. “It’s going to be tough. We have pitching, so that shouldn’t be as tough as replacing Alexis’ bat and her defense as well. That’s going to be more of a struggle than pitching.”

Gunter looks to his two returning seniors in 2017 Rio Hondo League Player of the Year Emily Tinkham, a shortstop, and 2018 all-league second team third baseman Kathleen Knudsen, to help on offense.

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“Emily Tinkham is always feared,” Gunter said. “… Temple City has intentionally walked her several times. She’s got MVP once because of her batting average and her home runs, so she’s always feared by everyone in the league.

“That’s why in the last couple of years, I had to put her as lead off because when she’s in the [No.] 3 or 4 spot, they just walk her. Now, when I put her in lead off, they’ll pitch to her the first time around and then they usually walk her.”

Tinkham, an all-league first-team selection last season, hit .532 with 31 runs and 22 RBI. Knudsen, last year’s third baseman, batted .375 with 13 runs and 17 RBI.

Up from the junior-varsity team, Gunter also adds Madison Solares.

“She might add a little something to the team,” Gunter said. “When she played on JV, she was the best player. She was ready for varsity.”

Returning underclassmen include sophomores outfielders Tia Leidelmeijer and Ella Polito.

Leidelmeijer will look to replace Maddy Reilly, a all-league first-team honoree, in the outfield, while Gunter will look to keep Polito in either right or left field.

FLINTRIDGE PREP

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A season ago, Flintridge Prep was one of the youngest teams in the area. A lack of experience didn’t seem to faze the Rebels, who had nine freshmen. Flintridge Prep went 11-8, 6-6 in the Prep League for fourth place before making a charge in the CIF Southern Section Division VII playoffs.

Under coach Julie Mejia, Flintridge Prep reached the second round of the playoffs as a wild-card entry.

Now, it appears as though the Rebels will turn to the much-needed experience they acquired from last season and continue to stay hungry.

“I think what we were able to do in the playoffs last year will definitely help us,” Mejia said. “The players now have a much better idea of what they need to do in terms of becoming a goal-oriented team.The interest level is so much higher and we want to be in position to win league and go far again in the playoffs.”

It’s quite possible that could happen for Flintridge Prep, which will bring back senior infielder/outfielder Melissa Grande (.517 batting average), senior infielder Libby Penn (11 stolen bases), sophomore catcher Emma Stellar (39 RBI) and sophomore infielder Olivia Stevens (17 runs).

FLINTRIDGE SACRED HEART ACADEMY

It was a difficult season for the Tologs last year after suffering several key injuries that played a role in them finishing 11-13, 1-7 in the Mission League for fifth place.

However, things could be looking up for the Tologs. The Tologs will spend the next two seasons in the Sunshine League, which features Louisville, Notre Dame Academy, Marymount and Immaculate Heart.

“We went through some things last year and it was hard to get going at times,” Flintridge Sacred Heart coach Kirk Nishiyama said. “I think we’ll be competitive and we’ll have most of the team back. I think we’ll be able to challenge for league.”

The Tologs will count on senior infielder Amanda Ramirez, senior outfielder Amesie Noll and senior catcher/outfielder Julia Powers to provide leadership. They will be joined by junior infielder Cate Ziegler, junior outfielder Brynne Richardson and junior catcher/outfielder Sarah Peck.

Ziegler earned All-Area accolades after batting .390, to go along with a .538 on-base percentage.

vincent.nguyen@latimes.com

Twitter: @ReporterVince


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